REMEMBERING CONCRETE CHARLIE
If you've been reading my columns for any length of time you'll know I'm an apostate American in the sense of not believing more is always better, and I've been critical of many moves the NFL has made in that direction. But I have to say honestly that I admire the way in which they have turned the off-season into a non-stop attention-getter. I still would prefer to see the draft come in the next few weeks, but after the most fascinating free-agency period I can remember, and the creation of the 'veterans combine' (which falls way short of the return of a development league, but is a good step, and ought to be called the 'veterans pro day?) I appreciate what the league has done to stay in the spotlight since the Super Bowl. If it gets any busier, I'm going to need y weekly column back in the off-season!
Iron Mike is, however, at heart old school, so this month's column won't be about any of the issues and moves that have filled your consciousness for the past two months. Instead, it's about Chuck Bednarik, because they didn't come any more old-school than Concrete Charlie.
You probably know he was the last of the full-time both-ways players, at center and linebacker. EJ Holub might have challenged that mark, but Holub, who played for the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs had nine knee surgeries, and played mostly at linebacker until he moved back to center. In fact he started Super Bowl II at linebacker, and Super Bowl IV at center; no one else has ever done that. But they couldn't keep Bednarik from playing both ways. In 1960, when the Eagles won the NFL title, he was 35 years old, and exclusively a center until Bob Pellegrini was injured in week five. Bednarik, formerly the middle backer, assumed his spot on the outside, which is where he was when he levelled Frank Gifford at Yankee Stadium. The hit put Gifford out of the game for a year and a half, with concussion symptoms, and was immortalised in John Zimerman's photo of Bednarik celebrating over Gifford's prostrate form. But when you watch the film you realise that Bednarik wasn't celebrating the hit, that the photo has been misinterpreted for half a century.
On film the hit looks like a body slam. I worked with Frank at ABC, and I recall his talking about it only once, in Kitzbuehel, Austria, where we were covering the skiing. He said it looked worse than it was, that it was the impact with the hard infield surface of Yankee Stadium that had done the real damage. He emphasized that the hit was perfectly legal (Giants' fans like to insist it was a clothesline) but it came from his blindside. In fact, you see Bednarik do a great job of playing the scrambling quarterback, George Shaw, then chasing down Gifford after the catch.
But what's fascinating is watching Bednarik first go toward the ball, which the Eagles recovered behind the play. Zimmerman's photo was taken only AFTER Bednarik turned back to Gifford, looking back toward the Eagles' side of the ball, and he was celebrating the fumble recovery that sealed the Eagles' win.
Bednarik's second most-famous tackle came in the NFL championship game that year, when he stopped Jim Taylor on another pass play out of the backfield, Taylor had broken one tackle and slipped another, but Bednarik actually had some help with the stop, at the seven yard line, and with holding Taylor down until time had expired. But his quote remains famous: 'You can get up now, Jim, this game's over'. That game was the only playoff match Vince Lombardi ever lost.
Bednarik made the NFL's all-decade team for the 1950s as a center. He didn't make the 75th anniversary team, although he probably should've got some recognition for being a two way player. Looking at film, seeing his athleticism down-field and his instincts at the line of scrimmage, I suspect linebacker may have been his better position. But during his career, his only real competition as the NFL's best center was Jim Ringo (Jim Otto in the Sixties AFL has now passed both) or maybe Chicago's Mike Pyle. At middle linebacker you could choose from the Bears' Bill George and Dick Butkus, the Lions' Joe Schmidt, the Packers' Ray Nitschke, or the Giants' Sam Huff.
I wrote Bednarik's obituary for the Daily Telegraph, but that was designed for people who didn't know anything about football, but the details of his life are worth repeating. He was the son of Slovak immigrants, his father worked at the hearth (or 'heart', as Bednarik pronounced it) in a steel mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Chuck didn't start speaking English until he went to school, and became a football star at Bethlehem's Liberty High. But with World War II raging, he enlisted before graduation (his mother collected his diploma) and at the age of 18 found himself flying as the waist gunner in a B-24 Liberator. He flew 30 missions, and when he came back after the war his plans had changed. He'd intended to get a job at the mill to help his father; now the GI Bill sent him to the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a three-time All-American and finished third in the 1948 Heisman Trophy voting, playing center and linebacker. He was drafted first overall in 1949 by the Eagles, which meant he didn't even have to change stadiums; the Eagles played at Penn's Franklin Field.
The Eagles were the defending NFL champions, having won the famed 'Snow Bowl' 7-0 on Steve Van Buren's touchdown in 1948. That they had the first pick in the draft was the result of the NFL's 'lottery', which was soon discontinued. Bednarik moved right into the starting lineup, and the Eagles won the NFL title again in 1949. Through the Fifties, however, the Eagles were a team in decline. That changed when Buck Shaw arrived to coach in 1958, and in 1960 traded for quarterback Norm Van Brocklin from the Rams.
His nickname reflected his hardness, but came because he was, literally, an industrial concrete salesman. He worked not only in the off-season but in season after the day's practice was over. After all, he had five daughters to support, and in those days even an NFL star's salary couldn't do it. And he didn't live large; all his life was spent between Bethlehem and Philly. And he paid the price: look at his snapping hand in that photo with another guy he tackled often, Jim Brown.
He retired after the 1962 season, aged 37, still being forced by circumstance to go both ways. Maxie Baughan, who was drafted to be his replacement at linebacker, and was a great one, called Chuck the best he'd ever seen. Bednarik headed the state athletic commission, overseeing boxing and wrestling, but he also became one of football's most outspoken and entertaining curmudgeons. He complained about overpaid players and a soft game, and laughed out loud when reporters tried to compare Deion Sanders' occasional forays as a wide receiver to his two-way play. 'He couldn't tackle my wife,' Concrete Charlie laughed. He was a popular speaker, and once, at a charity roast of Frank Gifford, he arranged to have the lights shut off as he took the dias. When the lights came back on after a minute, he told the audience 'now you know how Gifford felt when I hit him.'
His family said he was suffering Alzheimers when he died, aged 85, and attributed that to his football career. Jim Brown called him 'a true gladiator'. For me, Chuck Bednarik symbolises better than almost anyone what football was about when I was young, and wanted to play. It was something you did on your way to being a man. Being a man was defined differently in those days, and in some ways that's for the better now, but Chuck Bednarik's passing reminds me that in many ways it's not, and being a man like Chuck was not a bad aspiration.